Gaby Moreno is not concerned with leading the vanguard of ‘cool’. The 30-year old Guatemalan singer-songwriter’s music resurrects an atavistic, natural sonic space that electricity and modernity vacated decades ago. Her second full-length album, Illustrated Songs, swells and billows woodwinds together with strings and horns. Not a single part of the lush arrangement is at an odd angle, not a single sound competes with another. Everything is smooth, from the perfectly recorded instrumentals, to Moreno’s light touch on guitar, to the easy calm ambling through her bilingual lyrics. Above the music hangs her singing, a precise infusion of beauty and style. Gaby Moreno’s voice is the elegant ambassador between Vaudevillian showiness and blues that stretches out luxuriously across Illustrated Songs.
What kind of guitar work did you do on your album? There are a few solos.
Well I played all the rhythm guitar parts because every time I sing I have to be playing guitar. That’s how I recorded it, live, but my friends Mark Goldenberg and Greg Leisz—
Wait a minute. You recorded this album live?!
Yeah, that’s the only way I like to do it.
That’s incredible. One of my first impressions was, I wonder how long this took to record because there’s not a sound out of place, and there’s a lot of parts.
Oh, thank you. I mean you may not hear it, but there’s definitely some little imperfections here and there. But I don’t care because I really want to capture the moment, almost like a live performance. There’s no gimmicks, nothing autotuned; I’m really against that. We recorded everything in three days. The strings and the drums and bass were live. The only thing we overdubbed were the horns and the woodwinds, and that was only because they couldn’t fit in the studio. But if it were up to me, we would have done everybody live. I have to do it that way to get into it. And we had a fantastic engineer, Ryan Freeland. He was such a trouper. He got it to sound that great.
You very much prefer the music and culture of a bygone era to what we have today.
All I know is, I’m not happy with the format of it. I’m not a big fan of MP3’s. I’m not a big fan of people buying just a single and they could care less about the whole album. I usually buy vinyl, cause for me, that’s the best format to listen to music, and I sit down and listen to the whole thing, like watching a movie. I feel we’re being fed all this crap, like, Fast Food Nation. Everything has to be faster! and huge sounding! With the music compressed and through these little earbuds! I have an iPhone and I don’t have any music on it. I just can’t listen to music that way. I’m not saying other people shouldn’t listen to music that way, but I choose not to be a part of that. It’s like being a vegan: I’m an analog. I barely even use any pedals. I just want to keep it as simple as possible. For me it’s more about the performance.
What elements of the song do you focus on when you’re writing?
I tend to start with the music and add the melody, and let the words come at the end, because the music always dictates what I want to sing about.
There’s a video on YouTube of you covering “La Vie en Rose,” and the song features your voice soaring more than your own songs do. Do you ever feel like writing a song that you can really belt out?
This is actually something I hear from my mother all the time: “You need to show off your voice more!” I mean, I don’t know. When I’m writing my songs, I guess I’m just more concerned with writing a good song than showcasing my voice. I usually let it all out live.
You wrote what may become one of our generation’s most notable TV theme songs. Tell me about Parks and Rec.
I got an email from my manager, and it was an email that got sent to a bunch of composers saying, we’re looking for a theme song for a new show, this is the story, these are the characters, and you know, just write something. And I had never done anything for TV, so I was like, eh, this is such a long shot, I don’t know if I should do it. But they said it was only 30 seconds and that it was preferably instrumental. And I go, well, I can do that. So I just grabbed my guitar and I came up with the intro chords and a little melody, which to me at the time sounded like a folk song. But I didn’t want it to sound like a folk song. So I called up my friend Vincent Jones, and we added all these orchestral sounds, and that was it. You never think they’re gonna choose you. It’s like a cattle call, and they’re going to all the best composers. I got a call a few days later saying we had made it to the final sixty (laughs). Then after that, we found out we made it. I just started screaming. They re-recorded it with an orchestra. And then I got even luckier that the show turned out so great. I love it, I really like it. It’s just one of those things.
Check out a video interview with Gaby at the Latin Alternative Music Conference »